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It should come as little surprise that the etymology of safari comes from Swahili. Dependent on where you are in East Africa, safari is a direct translation for “journey” or “long journey.” This is a fitting metaphor for thinking of African safari as a vacation. Considering a safari in terms of must-see sights and check lists reduces it to any other sightseeing vacation, while thinking of it as an immersive journey into a vast unspoiled world helps to evoke the inimitably of the experience.
Many new travel experiences can be easy to preconceive; an iconic European city, the next tropical beach destination, an ancient Asian empire. While the destinations may be foreign, there's enough in the name to picture part of the experience. African safari ignites a whole host of competing images, each struggling for believability. Wildlife documentaries and animated movies help create idealized scenes, but trusting them as markers often seems farfetched. A thousand analogies about untamed animal kingdoms sound evocative, yet what does that really mean? Most of the animals can be found inhabiting zoos all across the world; so is safari that much different? While the remote often unimaginable exoticism of African safari is part of the seduction, it's also a huge part of the inhibition.
Even for the most dedicated safari aficionados, safari is both a diverse and all-encompassing term, one that isn't encapsulated in a single moment. Every day brings a thousand new scenes, each one potentially epitomizing the experience, yet simultaneously blending into the overarching impression. For the first time visitors, it’s important to start with the basics. Safari is not like being in a zoo, just like Paris's Louvre is nothing like visiting a high school art gallery. One features animals and the other features art, but that's where the similarities end. African safari is about animals in their natural habitat; born in the wild, raised in the wild, and seeking survival in nature's cycle of life. It's easy to recognize that there's a difference between a leopard in a cage and a leopard roaming across iconic bushland. Understanding the difference builds a picture of why African safari is so special.
There's a thrilling intimacy to exploring the wild, proximity and exclusivity ensuring that every moment is delivered in kaleidoscopic high definition. Perhaps the leopard is searching for food, its hunting instincts the pinnacle of an omnipresent wildlife interaction that plays out across a phenomenal scale. Many African safari destinations dwarf US states or European countries in size. And none of them are tamed. Rather than being on the outside looking in, a safari places you on the inside, offering immersion into nature's theater and its perpetual drama and charm. You don’t just have front row seats; you're on the stage. Quickly turn around and there's an elephant herd with trunk swinging babies leading the march. Safari is also defined by diversity; every angle is new, every day brings an eclectic concoction of scenes, every park offers something unique, and everyone's experience will be different, even if they're following the same itinerary.
Intimacy, interaction, immersion, scale, diversity; these concepts help answer the conundrum and provide the clues as to why African safari offers some of the planet's greatest travel experiences. The inimitably of the experience is not restricted to nature. There's an all-encompassing quality to African safari, the evocative theater complimented by an exceptional interior. Accommodation, guides, cuisine, transport, sublime surprises; each facet of an African safari experience both blends with the environment and enhances the idiosyncrasy, something that's explored in depth here.
A lion's mane flowing in the breeze, the fearful guise of a zebra herd, the melancholy smile of an old elephant bull cast out from the herd; head out on safari and there's an irrevocable intimacy to every scene. Animals reveal their full character in the wild, redolent eyes and ever-changing expressions always on display. There's often a shared glance, eyes briefly meeting as those on four legs recognize those on two. Some wildlife is always intrigued, maintaining the stare or coming closer; like a lion pride inspecting the safari truck. Some wildlife will skip off to hidden havens, while whole herds will stop and stare, considering their next move. Stop, stay silent, prove you're not a threat, and the intimacy levels increase.
Intimacy is partly stimulated by proximity. In an unfenced landscape there is often no limit to the closeness; turn a corner and a dozen giraffe cover the track, wake each morning to grazing ungulates beside camp, and stay quiet as a buffalo herd marches to within meters of your eyes. There are no barriers and such proximity brings an undeniable thrill. Intimacy also stems from the authenticity of what is being revealed. Wild animals are far more expressive than tamed ones and the wild African hinterlands are filled with characters, each with their emotions on full display. Mothers gently protecting calves, young males battling for supremacy and mating rights, babies tentatively becoming accustomed to the landscape they inhabit; these are moments that can define the safari experience, fleeting glances that linger in the memory or played-out dramas providing two hours of entertainment.
Intimacy is also provided by the exclusivity. A hundred faces may surround a lion in a cage. But with such an abundance of wild mammals, African safari is always an exclusive experience, even when exploring the most popular of the continent's destinations. There are usually less than a handful of eyes watching a whole lion pride slumber beneath a baobab tree; yours, your travel partners, and your guides’. Lionesses wake, a male rises, and soon the pride will disappear from view. They might not be seen by anyone for another 48 hours. Even when a dozen people gaze upon the same scene, everyone will be admiring something different. For example, take a herd of 25,000 wildebeest. Some will be transfixed by interactions within the herd, others focus on the stare of a calf half hidden amongst the grass, and somebody has spotted the cheetah pair hiding in the neighboring grass. It's one panoramic photo with thousands of equally intimate and exclusive close-ups.
Many people arrive on safari with a check list. This is completely understandable; safari destinations market themselves by listing the animals people can see. But like all good theater, African safari is not just about the actors advertised in the program. It's about how they interact, both with each other and with the audience. It's not just an elephant herd; it's three mothers gently hiding playful calves between an impenetrable wall of gray, two boisterous males shoving each other in tempestuous displays of power, and a dozen others swinging trunks in unison. Of course, the elephants are not alone as they approach the waterhole. The impala quickly skip away but the largest hartebeest wait, sucking up liquid goodness until a large foot splashes down and they find a retreat. These interactions are not scripted, although they're dictated by the untrammeled nature of the land.
Watching authentic hunting scenes is perhaps the pinnacle of the wildlife interaction. Sometimes it's over quickly, a flurry of dust hiding a stealthy raid into an ungulate herd. At other times the hunt plays out for hours, leopards dipping their necks with cold precision, approaching a few steps at a time. The drama of predator versus prey symbolizes both the rawness of the landscape and the untamed beauty of the experience. Nothing is adulterated or censored. You're viewing the scenes as they've always been played out and it's as brutal as it is charming. A hunt is far from the only showcase of survival. Males compete for mating rights, herds scare others away from precious water, and scavengers daringly steal from those with sharper teeth.
Glimpsing a certain animal in the wild for the first time is a special experience. Over time, the special experience comes from soaking up interactions that are found everywhere. They're found within herds and prides where horns clash, heads bump, feet stamp, mothers tend to young, teeth bite, sentries yell. Different wildlife is also continually interacting with each other. Some become friends, finding solace in numbers and ingeniously supporting symbiotic survival. Others are respectful enemies. And there's always a fleeting interaction shared with the audience: the delighted viewer on safari.
At a zoo, you're on the outside looking in. On a safari, you're on the inside, fully immersed in 360 degrees of drama. A buffalo herd marches past, but turn around and there's a spotted hyena in the grass. Look left and four different antelope species graze on the plains. Watch for ten minutes and then suddenly they scatter. Turn around, and it's only now that the leopard's camouflage is betrayed. The natural immersion undoubtedly means seeing and hearing more. When the panorama stretches in all directions, the question is not what you can see, but what do you focus on. Wildlife comes from every angle, whether it’s the close-up glimpse of a rhino pair, eagles soaring overhead, or the distant echo of hippo's wheeze-honk.
Remember that this is their environment and you are merely visitors, welcomed into an animal world that never stops. Safari doesn't start by stepping into the safari vehicle, nor does it end the moment you return to camp. As you're immersed in the natural paradigm, the interaction and intimacy is always been played out. Around an evening campfire come the distinct trumpeted calls of elephants. Wild zebra graze on the grass beside the camp tent. Necks of giraffe turn from yellow to black as the sun sets over a bush dinner. While every itinerary is filled with individual activities, the safari experience is not limited to what happens when you're out exploring. The most endearing of safari memories often come from sitting back and watching nature's show slowly unfold. Even when driving out of a park, expect a dozen stops for photos.
Seeing animals in their natural habitat is one experience. Waking up in their natural habitat is completely different. Camps and lodges are nestled deep within the national parks, offering prime wildlife viewing spots and blending into their surroundings. In many cases there are no fences, ensuring an unmitigated feeling of being alone with nature. Lie down in bed and a wild soundtrack becomes a nighttime lullaby, but open the curtains the next morning to find the culprit for the nearby rustling sound. The safari experience continues 24 hours a day and even in the quietest moments it's good to have the camera ready.
Safari quickly leaves impressions on a micro level, individual moments providing the resonant snapshots of life in the wild. But safari is also about scale. Take the Serengeti as an example; it's bigger than the Netherlands, but there are other game reserves in Tanzania that are four times that size. Four US States could fit into the area covered by Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve. If the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area was a country, it would easily rank within the 30 largest in the world. It's actually spread across five African nations. Such scale is perpetually inspiring, both conceptually and during the safari. For example, seeing a few elephants is always memorable. Driving for a day and witnessing thousands upon thousands of elephants is a new experience entirely.
As the hours roll into days, the safari experience starts to leave lasting impressions of this scale. This is not about seeing a few animals. Initially, it's the abundance of mammals and birds that begins to offer dazzling impression of scale. Even in the smallest of parks and reserves, each day will bring new herds, new battles, and something that's been hiding away until now. Even after a few days there will be a new sight to discover. Micro scenes build upon micro scenes and the macro begins to take shape, the whole experience is elevated when you consider that the scenes are repeating themselves over such an immense area.
In some parks you can drive for a full day and not see another vehicle. Many camps have their own private concession, thousands of square miles reserved for just a small handful of guests. Spend four days in a game reserve and you may only be scratching the surface. Such a thought makes everything all the more impressive. Naturally, a larger area can inevitably support a greater abundance of wild animals. However, size is just one factor when comparing national parks and safari destinations.
What to Expect as a First Time Visitor to Africa
Africa evokes hundreds of impressions, the untamed continent reveling in its mesmerism and mystique. Wild, rugged, untouched; each adjective has a tingling allure yet can be tinged by the negative, Africa's undeserving stereotypes often off-putting to the first time visitor. Will it be safe? Will it be comfortable? Can it be luxurious? Most return from African safari inspired, the experience blending perpetual surprise with an encompassing and sophisticated quality. The inimitability of an untrammeled big game landscape is elevated by the rest of the safari experience. Here's what to expect.
There's often little hesitation in imagining that a safari will bring fresh experiences and unique sights. It's undeniably alluring. However, there's often a “but”, a niggling thought that inhibits safari reverie from becoming firm reality. Isn't Africa underdeveloped and potentially dangerous? Universal stereotypes and preconceptions about Africa aren't helpful in portraying the continent as a vacation destination. There's no denying that the continent can be a culture shock, especially when there's elephants crossing the highway or monkeys swinging past the lodge verandah. But Africa is as comfortable as any other continent, and its luxury tourism industry regularly leads the world in offering quality and exclusivity. After just a couple of hours in Africa, any lingering negative preconceptions have been shattered. Not only are the destinations safe, they immediately dampen any initial fear.
Safari has always been the mainstay of the continent's tourism and it remains a core part of some countries' economies. It's not a new concept. Safari tourism has developed over many decades, flourishing into a sophisticated and well-developed industry that comes as a surprise to many visitors. The logistics of organizing amenities in the wilderness necessitate ingenious solutions and not cutting corners. Erecting a camp in the heart of lion country is not easy. The rewards for making it happen are endless. African safari accommodation imbues an unexpected quality, combining the colorful character of the continent with the modern touches demanded by Western visitors. They're exceptionally located, immersed in the landscape you came to explore and overlooking prime wildlife congregations.
Distinctive and delightful, the accommodation is another piece in a jigsaw of encompassing quality. Gourmet food combines local organic produce with international panache, land or air transfers are journeys and experiences in their own right, while guides and staff provide a personal touch. African safari is very much a luxury experience, regardless of the budget: campfires surrounded by wandering four-legged silhouettes, picnics beside a popular waterhole, kerosene lanterns flickering as a lion roars. As well as offering traditional notions of luxury, Africa is wonderfully adept at creating its own definitions. While the surrounding hinterland is one of iconicity, filled with roaming big game, the whole experience imbues both old-African charm and the continent's innovation.
First time visitors thinking of Africa almost always have some hesitation. For all the hypnotic daydreams of wandering wildlife and intimate big game encounters, there are the irritating negatives that struggle to be silenced. Almost everyone wants to try out an Africa safari. But universal preconceptions and stereotypes about Africa can be very off-putting. Is it safe? Do they even have electricity? Aren't the beds little more than mattresses on the ground of mud huts?
There's no denying that Africa can be a culture shock. While you're not going to find lions patrolling the airport runway, or rhinos marauding through villages, there's an immediate impression of being catapulted into an exotic land. An effervescent natural bounty is omnipresent, as are endearing smiles from welcoming locals. The landscapes are foreign, the low-rise, low-key buildings don't have the pomp or shimmer of the West, and there's an exuberant sociability to the streets. Life is lived outdoors and in the open. It's not dictated by electronic screens or overbearing time constraints. The whole of Africa runs to an indelibly laid-back rhythm, one that precludes stress and always provides the time for both strangers and friends to greet. Perhaps more than anything, it's this simpler yet inherently friendlier cadence that offers the initial culture shock.
Simpler doesn't mean less comfortable. While the rest of the world falls over itself in trying to convert to organic and ecological, these concepts have always been fundamental to the African continent. A hundred miles from a road or village, in a plain surrounded by elephants, solar panels provide the power and hot water for a mobile camp. Buildings invariably blend into the surroundings because they're built using materials exclusively taken from the same environment; hand-carved wooden beds, thatched bomas the ideal evening meeting place, everything benefitting from space. It's not semi-disposable Swedish furniture or glisteningly glass-fronted. Africa has developed its own style, one bursting with vibrant colors and vivid tones, and one that comes with an unexpected quality.
While Africa has an overarching feeling and leaves embracing impressions, there are immediately apparent contrasts as you move between countries. Some are insatiably green, others iconically scorched; each has its own way of saying welcome. These distinct differences aren't restricted to national boundary lines; the Maasai and Hadzabe tribes of Tanzania are ideologically poles apart. While these disparities may take a couple of vacations to experience, there's always likely to be another trip to Africa. The continent receives many first time visitors; it doesn't see many visitors who say it will be their last visit.
The Encompassing Quality of African Safari
Tourism has been an essential factor in conservation in Africa. While the problem of poaching hasn't gone away, it's rapidly reduced from its peak during the seventies and early eighties. A number of staggering success stories are testament to an inherent desire for the wildlife to be preserved and to prosper. For example, for every story of illicit ivory, the 100,000 elephants migrating through the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area provide evidence of a continent-wide commitment. Preserving the natural environment is centered upon the growing number of protected national parks and reserves. These parks charge entrance fees which are often far higher than national parks in the rest of the world. Licenses to provide accommodation are also expensive. While some may argue that the park fees negatively restrict access, the upshot is that African safari is not a place for organized bus tours or mass group tourism. From a local perspective, one tourist paying $100 is better than ten paying $10, offering the same money for conservation at just a fraction of the impact.
Invariably, African safari is not a bargain vacation. With the level of park fees and accommodation costs, there isn't an absolute budget option. But there also isn't a budget experience. Nobody would pay $100 to enter a park and then sleep in squalid accommodation. No camp will spend thousands on transporting materials into lion country and then neglect a broken light fitting. Paying certain costs provides a certain expectation of quality and the safari tourism industry excels in responding to this pressure.
Guides always provide a personal touch, as well as a detailed narrative on the surroundings. Staff to guest ratios are always well above elsewhere in the world, with some high-end camps providing personal butlers for every room. Competition for jobs within the tourism sector is high and those that grow within a company are those that can best respond to clients' needs.
Gourmet cuisine also offers markers of quality. Organic local produce is blended with international influence, the chefs concocting lavish and hearty meals throughout the day. Tables are set in the wilderness, perhaps beside a smoldering fire or maybe alone in a forest of antelopes. Little touches maintain the overall impression; like sundowners on elevated platforms above the plains, bath towels folded into the shape of elephants, hidden hides that intensify the wildlife proximity, or traditional drumming circles after dark. The local tourism industries have always been focused on providing high-end unique experiences. They've never had a focus on being budget. And while the costs may make African safari a once in a lifetime vacation rather than an annual trip, they've ensured both conservation and quality across the board.
African Safari is Very Much a Luxury Experience
In many destinations around the world, luxury is measured using star ratings, a standardized system denoting quality. That's not particularly applicable on African safari, the inimitability of the environment and experience necessitating a new set of markers. You won't find a concierge desk or valet service, nor will there be a flat-screen TV with 500 channels. African safari can fulfill traditional notions of luxury; lavish rooms with panoramic vistas, handcrafted opulent fittings, serenity exuding throughout, and an unrivaled personal service. Yet in many aspects it creates its own definitions; kerosene lantern-lit dinners beneath the stars, giraffe saying hello as you sit down to breakfast, opening the curtains and watching the great wildebeest migration. With evocative landscapes providing the canvas, African safari can be as luxurious as anywhere on the planet.
As the sun sets on a day of safari, memories are imbued with surprise. Preconceptions have molded and twisted into reality, foreign concepts now understood as the safari itinerary plays out. Picturing an African safari initially comes with dozens of questions. What happens after sundown? How long is a game drive? Is there time to relax? Safari itineraries burst with exotic reverie. Rhino tracking walking safari, lunch stops beside a waterhole, mobile camps in the forest; it all sounds exciting, but taking the snapshots and creating a firm picture of a safari vacation is difficult. So, what happens on an African safari? What does a typical day look like? Here's an overview.
It can be easy to picture a European itinerary, with visits to museums, city walking tours, or dinner tables booked at a Michelin star restaurant. But even the staple safari activity, the game drive, comes as an alien concept to first time visitors. How long is a safari? How much is game and how much is driving? As much as the destination is exotic, so is a safari itinerary, filled with new concepts and unique experiences. As a starting point, the general mood is one of serenity and tranquility. For all the thrill and excitement of being on safari, most itineraries follow the rhythm of life out on the landscape; cool mornings and late afternoons are when the action is intensified, while the hot midday sun is usually for downtime and relaxing at camp. With the procession of wildlife continually wandering past, these quiet hours radiate charm.
Every itinerary is filled with an often diverse collection of safari activities, each of them flexible at heart. Guides are experts at maximizing the wildlife encounters but the experience is wildly unpredictable. For example, a game drive might last an extra hour because you've spotted vultures and hyenas fighting over a baby hippo carcass. Or it could be cut short as basecamp has radioed in a pride of lions hanging out by the camp's waterhole. Some activities are more structured, like hot air balloon rides or river boat cruises, but a vast proportion of an itinerary will be constantly tinkered dependent on the mood of both the customer and the animals. Walking safari, nighttime drives, horseback safari; new impressions are offered by the myriad of activities, each providing a compelling angle.
Safari continues at camp, where there are many more exotic concepts to consider. What are the bathroom facilities like? What do you eat? Is there even electricity? While the camps excel in blending into the environment, there is more than adequate comfort and an ongoing itinerary of surprise; cocktails at sundown, mid-afternoon snacks, detailed narratives provided by wildlife specialists, stargazing instruction, guided walks in the vicinity. And while this might be the middle of the bush, the amenities are much like the comforts of home. Using traditional methods and modern touches, safari camps provide a blueprint in ecological existence.
Moving between destinations is part of the experience, the road journeys, another game drive, and the aerial flights providing stunning impressions of scale. The wilderness excels in offering solitude and calmness, an unexpected addition to a vacation that evokes notions of drama. Even on a drive between parks there are always a dozen photo opportunities. And while safari destinations and itineraries are based on similar ideas and activities, there's a diversity and individuality that shines throughout.
African Safari is Generally a Relaxed Vacation
Picture a relaxed destination and white sand or charming old towns usually spring to mind, not a landscape dominated by quarreling hippos or rampaging ungulate herds. Unlike the swaying palms and white sand, African safari is undeniably unpredictable, the experience dominated by the interactions found in an untamed environment. Individual wildlife highlights will differ from person to person yet an overarching impression of serenity radiates through almost all safari itineraries. There's no sound from passing traffic, no rushing around cramming a hundred destinations into one day, only the touches of personal service that prohibits stress. Read a book and lift your eyes above the page as a giraffe tower roams nearby; break for coffee with panoramas from a wildlife documentary, and sit around a campfire that crackles intermittently. There is always downtime on safari, and there is often an evening atmosphere of old-world charm.
Safari itineraries reflect the pattern of nature. When the African sun beats down it scorches the landscape, most four-legged residents seeking out shade or cooling in wallowing waters. In challenging environments like these, everything must conserve energy to survive. It's through these hotter midday hours that a good safari itinerary also conserves and re-energizes, either at camp or by taking a leisurely lunch in a shaded area. There's little point driving around for three hours when the wildlife is hiding away and sleeping. Likewise, there's every need to balance the excitement with the beauty of the camp.
Typical Safari Activities
The landscapes are most active in the morning and late afternoon; predators prowling, herds moving, grazers grazing. The most typical safari day will include two guided daily activities, often coinciding with these more exciting times in the hinterland. The rest of the itinerary will be about relaxing at camp, where the safari sights invariably continue. In some destinations, particularly the larger national parks and reserves, an alternative is a longer full-day game drive, with a leisurely stop for lunch en route. This enables visitors to cover a greater area and can also be a preferred choice in a park of multiple habitats and ecosystems.
The mainstay of safari is a guided game drive, usually in an open-sided four wheel drive vehicle. The pace is slow and the roads probably rough and rugged. There are set trails through every park and reserve and driving off these routes is illegal. Preserving the wilderness depends on not trampling through native habitat and some national parks have name and shame boards of drivers who've been temporarily suspended. For every game drive, the guide will have an idea of the route to take, something that's often decided through conversation with the customer. Certain places are renowned for certain animals and the length of the drive will be dictated by the route. However, once the game drive starts, the unpredictability of the environment takes over. Watch a leopard out hunting or follow an elephant herd and a two hour loop becomes three hours long. Whenever something is spotted, the driver stops, cuts the engine, and waits until everyone is ready to continue.
Walking and boat safaris follow a similar routine, usually with a flexible yet partly predetermined route. The speed is dictated by the group and the variable nature of the environment. Like a game drive, there are rules on where you can explore and which areas must be seen from a distance. Private concessions and private game reserves usually offer more freedom. In some safari destinations, morning and afternoon game drives are the norm. In others, combining activities provides a more complete impression of the landscape, yet they can't cover the same distance as game drives.
Other options make the typical safari day even harder to define, like a hot air balloon or aerial safari. Nighttime game drives are vastly different, the eerie blackness increasing the intimacy and thrill of the experience. With a single roving spotlight, nighttime drives normally provide some close-up encounters that can't be experienced when the wildlife can see the vehicle coming. Nocturnal wildlife emerges from their hiding places and sights are enhanced by a greater focus on sounds. There are yet more potential safari activities dependent on the destination, like galloping on horseback or even mountain biking alongside zebra.
The Flexibility of a Safari Day
While the daily itinerary will probably be planned in advance, safari is ever flexible. Certain activities are better at different times of the year. For example, as the dry season rumbles on, wildlife congregates around the remaining sources of water, often meaning the destination is suited to longer game drives with leisurely time spent at these known places. When the wildlife scatters widely during the rains, a walking safari can bring continual sprinklings of big game viewed from ground level. Planning a day's activities will also depend on the overall itinerary. Boat cruises and traditional mokoro canoe safaris are very popular in Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta; but doing them every day on a week-long itinerary can be overkill.
Regardless of the activity, guides plan routes based on current knowledge. If rhinos have been spotted in the same area for a few days then the game drive is likely to veer this way. Radio contact alerts other guides to certain sightings, so the plan may quickly change if an elusive sight is prowling off route. On longer safari vacations, each activity is likely to be tailored dependent on what has gone before. There's no point spending a day seeking out elephants if you've just been on safari in Tarangire National Park. Guides like to ensure that their visitors are able to admire the full range of African wildlife, so especially towards the end of a safari vacation, routes and activities will look to offer something new to the collection of memories.
Safety is also a factor in planning a safari day. While images of walking alongside lions are a popular misconception of safari, there could be instances of quickly changing the plan because wildlife is on the prowl. Guides use detailed knowledge and understanding to predict animal behavior and ensure safety. For example, a candlelit dinner in a forest often populated by elephants is a magical touch to an itinerary. If two teenage males have been fighting throughout the day, inhabiting their space will not be safe. A mobile camp may be moved at the last moment because a leopard has been spotted in the vicinity. Paddling past a hippo pod is a wonderful experience, but not when the females' scents are sending males into crazed moods. No matter how well planned a safari itinerary has been, it's always important to stay flexible and accept that changes are sometimes inevitable. It can be disappointing, but remember that responding to the environment is also what delivers the most endearing of safari memories.
What Happens at the Safari Camp or Lodge
Solitude and space are defining features of safari accommodation. While all safari activities are guided, most camps like to leave guests to their own devices. Sit back. Listen. A glimmer of rustling interrupts the silence, and then the footsteps gradually get louder. An elephant passes. A hartebeest appears from the periphery then continues its journey. Silence again. While safari activities are about exploring and seeking out wild game, spending time at camp is about relaxing and allowing nature's show to slowly reveal itself. There's usually a series of vantage points; private verandahs, communal areas around a campfire or in a traditional boma, perhaps a swimming pool with wide-open vistas. Many camps are situated over water, ensuring the procession of wildlife that must come for a drink. Stay for a few days and it's easy to start recognizing the same creatures appearing at the same time each day.
The majority of safari itineraries are inclusive of meals and most drinks; which is almost essential when the nearest restaurant is 40 miles away. Camps pride themselves on the quality of their food and in offering unique dining experiences. Expect dinner tables screaming of charm, new tastes as various meats are roasted, and no waiters rushing you to finish because someone's waiting for a table. Like the itinerary, these meals are often flexible. A quick and easy breakfast may be served before a sunrise game drive, with a heartier brunch awaiting your return. Meals can be packed up and served en route, especially when there is a long activity to follow. Back at camp, snacks and drinks are served on demand, the personal service reflecting what's demanded by the most discerning of guests.
Much like a five-star hotel may lure its guests to a 20th floor swimming pool overlooking the city, safari camps and lodges look to maximize their surrounding bounty. When a camp is first erected the wildlife may have been scared off. Over time it returns, recognizing that this foreign place isn't a threat. Groups of habituated animals become part of the camp itinerary. For example, staff can predict that a large bull elephant will wander through just after sundown every day, or a resident herd of buffalo come to graze around breakfast time. The camp uses this knowledge to plan surprises that add extra excitement to the day.
Amenities at a Safari Camp or Lodge
Safari camps are often as ecological as it's possible to be. There's no garbage collection truck in the bush, no power lines, and little connection with the modern world. Electricity is usually of the low-key solar powered variety, enough to provide ample soft lighting and charge a phone. There's little need for anything more. Some camps do without electricity and this can be equally charming, kerosene lanterns and candles offering a more complete immersion in the bush. These aren't universal rules though. Larger lodges and private game reserves may have more permanent electricity.
Bathrooms and showers almost invariably offer hot water, the water temperature fueled by fire. Some will have direct plumbing and look much like the shower at home. Others may have hot bucket showers, a more traditional method of getting yourself clean. It's rare to not have a toilet seat; however, toilets in the wilderness are not always the water-guzzling flushing variety. Composting long drop toilets are far kinder to the environment. This traditional method is usually finished with a western style ceramic toilet seat. While cliches about Africa are wide ranging, it's very unlikely your facilities will include a hole in the ground.
Connecting Safari Destinations
Safari destinations revel in their specialties and idiosyncrasies, each providing a new look at Africa's wilderness. Most safari vacations combine at least two, and perhaps five or more of these destinations, from large national parks to smaller private game reserves. In many cases, traveling between them is never lost or dull time. Parks connect to each other as they form jigsaw pieces in larger conservation areas. For example, the journey from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara is an uninterrupted game drive, the vehicle following the same route as 1.5 million wildebeest during their great migration. In other counties, while the wildlife may become scarcer, you're driving through beautiful wilderness on quiet roads that connect parks and reserves.
Aerial journeys provide a quicker transportation between safari destinations. In countries like Botswana, Kenya, and Tanzania, there are scheduled flights that follow popular routes between national parks. Think tiny eight-seater aircraft touching down on remote airstrips flickering with dust. Chartered services are also available and some of the luxury camps offer aerial transfer as standard. Apart from minimizing travel time, these flights offer dramatic views onto the herds and landscapes' diversity, providing a dazzling impression of scale.
The Individuality of Safari
The safari umbrella is a broad one, encompassing a dozen countries and an eclectic range of experiences. At the heart of every itinerary is maximizing the immersion and interaction with nature's theater. Yet no two safari vacations are ever the same. An ongoing originality shines through the experience. For this reason, the best safari vacations are those that stretch over many days and absorb two or more destinations.
Is Africa Safe to Visit?
All-encompassing generalizations have consistently left a negative imprint on the growth of tourism across the whole continent. For example, the ebola outbreak in West Africa was a major factor in tourist numbers dropping in East Africa. The epicenter of the outbreak is actually closer to Spain and Italy than the safari destinations of Tanzania and Kenya. Africa is a continent of 2000 tribes and over 50 countries. Mozambique and Rwanda are as different as Russia and Italy, although the two European countries rarely get mentioned in the same breath when it comes to vacation destinations. Nobody discounts Portugal as a destination because there's fighting in Ukraine or a bomb went off in Paris. Yet many are quick to sideline Botswana because of a negative news story somewhere in Africa. The result is a sometimes fearful hesitance to travel to Africa. Within just a couple of days, most visitors are wondering why they were initially so skeptical or tentative.
In general, destinations are in Africa are as safe to visit as anywhere else in the world. In particular, those with burgeoning and developed tourism industries, like the countries in East and Southern Africa, pose no greater safety threat than a standard European city. Crime rates in many US cities dramatically dwarf those in most African countries.
Preconceptions of unfenced landscapes and dangerous wild mammals also pose frequently asked questions about safety. If the camp is surrounded by the Big Five, doesn't everyone get eaten or trampled? Local tribes have coexisted with lions and the rest of the cast of the Big Five for thousands of years. Generations of knowledge have been developed and passed down, ensuring ways to live harmoniously and safely with nature's greatest mammals. It's this ancestral knowledge that means visitors don't need to view the wildlife through fences. And it's this exacting understanding of the wild that ensures safety in an untamed land.
A Sophisticated and Developed Tourism Industry
It's an inherent and intricate understanding of the environment that has helped the continent develop a very sophisticated and developed tourism industry. The basic logistics of offering African safari can be baffling to visitors. Travel companies must find a way to peacefully and harmoniously provide accommodation and experiences in the most remote of unfenced hinterlands. This isn't a case of throwing up a city hotel or offering a tour along sealed roads. It's taking people out into landscapes that may never have been inhabited by man. Combining ancestral tribal knowledge with ideas from around the world, the African safari industry has managed to offer comfort and luxury, without any major impact to the environment.
Camps and lodges are erected in the most secluded wilderness, hundreds of miles from any roads or settlements. Tiny planes transport people from national park to national park, the dusty airstrips sometimes having to be cleared of antelope in advance. Deep in the desert there are luxury camps with flowing hot water and private plunge pools overlooking plains of giraffe and buffalo. While notions of simplicity and underdevelopment are often applied to Africa, realizing and organizing such demanding logistics necessitates a professional and developed tourism industry. When such commitment and effort is required to get an operation off the ground, expect an attention to detail that occupies every corner.
Creating seemingly impossible adventures in the wilderness has been the mainstay of safari tourism since its inception. It should therefore come as no surprise that local tour operators excel in offering bespoke and customized itineraries. There isn't a standard safari itinerary. For starters, in a continent of choice, there are hundreds of potential safari destinations. Yet even in the same country or destination, there's always a unique spin or idiosyncratic specialty that helps tour operators and camps provide markers of quality. African safari isn't the best choice for anyone seeking a well-worn march around a set series of attractions.
The Quality of Accommodation
Boutique and eco-lodge are buzz words in the travel industry. In the last few years, there's been a conscious move away from clearly recognizable yet monotone markers of quality. Offering distinction now demands distinctiveness. Boutique hotels and eco-lodges are in fashion. Five-star hotels that look the same in every city are out. Africa has been doing boutique and eco-lodge since long before the terms were coined. Unique styles are stimulated by traditions and history, the local furnishings and colors often wildly exotic to foreign eyes. Transporting materials to the heart of the wilderness is challenging so, by necessity, accommodation has been built using what's locally available and following the longstanding architectural designs that are best suited to a demanding environment. There's ingenuity to African living and it's reflected in the accommodation on offer.
It's sometimes difficult to picture world-leading lodges and five-star quality when it comes under the banner of Africa. It's hard to imagine unrivaled luxury when the setting is the Serengeti or some other big game landscape. Naturally, some amenities aren't provided in the bush. You're unlikely to find a minibar or trouser press in the room. There won't be an electronic swipe card to open the door. Think less about bubble baths and more about en-suite bathrooms with beautiful panoramas across iconic landscapes. Don't worry about closing the windows to minimize traffic noise. On safari, the accommodation ensures that nature's resonant soundtrack always provides an additional coating of charm.
Luxury comes from both the accommodation and its setting. Always expect space and seclusion. In such wide open landscapes, it wouldn't make any sense to be cramped. Camps and lodges are designed to maximize and elevate the submersion in nature; in many cases you only need to open the curtains to watch the wildlife wander past. But wait. Camping?! Tents?! Here are further popular preconceptions that are quickly squashed. While the word camp is disconcerting, it merely reflects accommodation that doesn't provide any permanent damage to the environment. Concrete and glass would look hideously out of place. But wooden flooring, chairs set around a crackling fire, and low-level solar lighting help maintain nature's spell.